Corpse Party was originally made way back in 1996 for the Japanese PC-98 computers, using the first incarnation of the well-known RPG Maker software. That's important to know, as it explains why the game looks like an RPG but plays absolutely nothing like one. Its inspiration comes more from NES title Sweet Home (minus the combat), the horror-adventure style of Clock Tower for the SNES, and the mechanics of the Space/Robot chapter of Japanese RPG Live a Live was also probably an inspiration to the original creators as well. It took until 2011 for the game to be revisited and revised for commercial release; in Japan it's available on UMD, but in the west it's only available as a downloadable title via PSN.
Though it looks and manuevers like a 16-bit RPG, Corpse Party really is Team GrisGris implementation of a "visual novel" using an RPG engine. The hallmark of the "visual novel" is fantastic atmosphere, but usually at the price of rigid linearity and walls of text to read through. They're also not often noted for being rooted in logic, but rather in repetitively and obsessively re-visiting old environments and clicking on the same commands over and over and over until something finally happens to progress the game. The RPG-hybrid format offers an opportunity to break out of this mold, as Sweet Home successfully did, but Corpse Party instead adheres to traditional "visual novel" conventions, and as such becomes an experience that is intensely atmospheric and well-written but also often intensely obtuse and frustrating.
The story opens with a bunch of classmates getting together after school to have a send-off for one who is moving away the next day. The horror junkie of the bunch talks everyone into an occult ceremony where they each rip off a piece of a paper doll to keep with them so that they'll be "friends forever" or somesuch. Unfortunately, as it happens the school was built on the grounds of another school that was demolished after a teacher went nuts and murdered a bunch of kids. Apparently having never seen a horror movie ever, the kids go ahead with the ceremony anyway, and sure enough, they wind up trapped in some horrific alternate dimension where the school is all wrecked up and vengeful ghosts wander the halls.
So it looks like an RPG, and you'll soon see your characters have health points, but those just seem to be a holdover of the RPG Maker origins, and barely ever come into play (only during a few self-contained scenes where you can touch a poisoned floor or a ghost a few times before depleting them and dying.) There's no combat whatsoever. Unfortunately, this means the challenge comes from sheer randomness. Deaths can come from simply walking into the wrong place at the wrong time, making the wrong choice, or just overlooking something early in a chapter that comes back to kill you anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes of gameplay later. The game actually encourages you to suss out many of these random deaths - some of them have elaborate "wrong endings" attached to them, and the game keeps a checklist of all the endings you've found, a la Clock Tower. Additionally, finding all the possible endings in a chapter is usually needed to unlock the "extra chapters" which flesh out the story more and answer questions unresolved in the main branch.
If Corpse Party had found a way to do all this without the irritating, obsolete "try and die" adventure game mechanics, it might have been one of the best horror games ever. The horror writing by itself is excellent. It does clearly lean on Sweet Home for the overall structure of the plot, but I also felt it did one of the best jobs ever of depicting the psychological horror of dealing with a malevolent spirit you initially can't even comprehend or understand, who only allows you to live because they're toying with and testing you, and who will have to be appeased on their own terms rather than deus ex machina intervention of some sort of savior or holy spirit. The relentlessly grim tone and thick atmosphere is all the more impressive considering the primitive engine and fairly generic anime art direction that it uses. Aside from the writing, chalk this up largely to an all-star voice acting cast; Xseed didn't translate the vocal work, but even if you don't understand the language it's equally effective just in the emotional delivery (as well as screams, shrieks and gurgles.)
The game's mystery is genuinely compelling, but that only goes so far in counterbalancing the highly irritating gameplay, which I think will turn off a good deal of the more "mainstream" audience in spite of its other qualities. While the "Wrong Ends" are part of the fun, getting hit with one unexpectedly (and often unfairly) can mean an excrutiatingly long replay of unskippable dialogue and uneventful meandering through the halls (the game has a limited number of "save points" rather than letting you save anywhere.) Aside from the random death ambushes that can't be anticipated, the game also employs the RPG equivalent of "pixel hunting" at times. A very obscure door combined with the overall general over-darkness of the graphics (I could barely see what was going on in cloudy daylight) forced me to stop playing right at the beginning of a 1.5 hour commute, as I literally could not see where the hell I was supposed to go. The "chase scenes" also alternate between being immensely frustrating (when you're trapped in a small area out of nowhere with a ghost) and immersion-breakingly laughable (when you're in a big open area and the horrible pathing of the ghosts gets them hung up trying to walk through a wall or a pit constantly.)
I'm left feeling that Corpse Party will be a treat for hardcore psychological horror aficionadoes, but it makes itself too inaccessible to anyone else between its frustrating and archaic gameplay mechanics, and its relentlessly brutal nightmare-fuel subject matter. Heck of a ride if you're so inclined, though, and big-budget horror game makers should probably crib some notes on effeciency and effectivity in presentation from this game.
* Gameplay Video